How Do You Measure a Life?

A life sentence has not always meant a person’s natural life in North Carolina—probably. Under G.S. 14-2 as it existed for offenses committed after April 8, 1974, but before July 1, 1978, a “sentence of life imprisonment shall be considered as a sentence of imprisonment for a term of 80 years in the State’s prison.”

The General Assembly arguably enacted this provision as a corollary to the then-existing rule that life sentences became parole eligible after 20 years. Defendants sentenced prior to 1978 generally became parole eligible after serving one-fourth of their maximum prison term, and 20 is one-fourth of 80. The Court of Appeals, however, recently held in State v. Bowden, __ N.C. App. __, 668 S.E.2d 107 (2008), that under the plain language of G.S. 14-2 as it existed during that time frame, a life sentence must be considered 80 years for all purposes, including calculation of outright release date.

Not only does a life sentence from that era have an expiration date before, um, expiration, it could also theoretically be reduced from 80 to 40 years under DOC’s “day-for-day” good time credit rule for certain pre–Structured Sentencing cases. The day-for-day credit rule reduces a sentence by one day for each day the inmate serves without infraction. (The same rule still applies, by the way, for DWI sentences—regardless of whether they are served in jail or prison—to the extent that the reduction does not drop the sentence below the mandatory active time. I can post on that later if people are interested.) A life sentence could be further reduced by an additional 20 percent or so for “gain time,” depending on the quality and quantity of the inmate’s work in prison. So, a well-behaved, hard-working defendant sentenced to “life” in 1975 could theoretically reach his or her date of unconditional release before 2010.

All of this comes with a caveat. The North Carolina Supreme Court granted the State’s motion for a temporary stay in the Bowden case on November 21, 2008. 362 N.C. 683 (2008). I’ll update this post with a comment when the high court weighs in.

So how do you measure a life? If the justices agree with the Court of Appeals—and with apologies to fans of Rent—the answer is 42,048,000 minutes. Minus applicable credits, of course.

38 comments on “How Do You Measure a Life?

  1. You: “(The same rule still applies, by the way, for DWI sentences—regardless of whether they are served in jail or prison—to the extent that the reduction does not drop the sentence below the mandatory active time. I can post on that later if people are interested.)”

    Me: “Count me in!”

  2. Newbie: Thank you for the feedback. I will add it to the queue. For now, know that DOC has, under G.S. 148-13(b), issued sentence reduction regulations for jail inmates serving impaired driving sentences; those regulations state that inmates convicted of DWI and sentenced to an active term are eligible for day-for-day good time credit; and that jail administrators are required to follow those regulations under G.S. 148-13(e). The only limit to this amelioration of punishment is found in G.S. 20-179(p)(2), which says the DWI mandatory minimum may not be reduced by good time credit.

    • Could you post a link to the DOC regs?

  3. The NC Supreme Court granted the State’s petition to review this ruling on May 1, 2009.

  4. I would like to be kept up on this new ruling on Bowden. From my understanding that North Carolina pass a law allowing the ones who were sentence before 1978 to be release. So I don’t understand why they are not doing the job? My brother has been in there since 1975 serving two concurrent life sentences and has a good record with alot of extra credit, but they still won’t let him out.

    • This is similar to what’s going on with my brother. He has been in since 1986. He was first accused of rapping an elderly lady, but they had no true evidence, and the lady did not identify him as the assailant,so he was acquitted. Therefore, since they could not proved him guilty of rape, they gave him life for burglary. Question, is it lawful to switch up like that.
      He got his Motion for release papers several years ago, but the judge would not touch them.
      Is that legal?

  5. The Bowden case is being argued in the Supreme Court today.

  6. swampjudge: The DOC policies on sentence reduction credits are available here: Please let me know of any questions.

  7. The NC Supreme Court decided today that its discretionary review of the Bowden case was improvidently allowed. So, “life” for defendants in this narrow time window equals 80 years for all purposes, not just parole eligibility.

  8. What is a life sentence on first degree murder that happened in the late 90’s

  9. boubie: A life sentence from the late 1990s would be a true natural life sentence–without the possibility of parole or any reduction based on credit for work or good behavior.

    For an offense committed on or after October 1, 1994, but before December 1, 1998, a defendant sentenced to life without parole is entitled, under G.S. 15A-1380.5, to a review of his or her sentence by a superior court judge from the county of conviction after 25 years of imprisonment. After completing that review, the judge is required to make a recommendation to the Governor as to whether the sentence should be altered or commuted. The Governor is required to consider the judge’s recommendation, but is not required to take any action based on it. If the sentence is not altered or commuted, it must be reviewed again every two years.

    G.S. 15A-1380.5 was repealed in 1998 (S.L. 1998-212), but it continues to apply to offenses committed before the effective date of the repeal (December 1, 1998).

  10. So are individuals sentenced to life imprisonment for offenses committed after December 1, 1998 in North Carolina eligible for commutation or any possibility of release? If yes, then do they receive a review hearing similar to before or must they petition directly to the governor? I know many states have removed any possibility for release, including gubernatorial release, for those sentenced to life and I was wondering if North Carolina has done the same.

    As a side note, here in Pennsylvania, we have never had parole eligibility for lifers (at least in the past century or so), but the governor retains the power to commute sentences (though this is rarely used anymore). This has; however, caused a build up of long term inmates who have little chance of release. A relative of mine served nearly 50 years of a life sentence before he was released via commutation.

  11. Doesn’t look like my friend is getting out anytime soon then. Not that he deserves too. And when he does I can garuntee he won’t be a productive member of society. this just sucks.

  12. My brother has lung cancer, diabetes, half his liver, an amputated left leg and underwent a triple bypass. He’s an inmate in the federal medical center in Butner, N. C. who after 31 years & 10 months was denied his release date of 1/23/2010. His crime wasn’t rape or murder. Because of your public status it is understandable you may not be able to help us. But please direct me to someone willing to assist us in gaining a compassionate release for my brother Maurice B. Wade.

  13. Someone convicted of a sex crime in 1995… Does he have chance of parole? And can the victom be granted to visit the inmate?? My husband would like to visit his father but is not sure if it would be allowed and is too upset to call and ask in fear of being denied.

  14. My husband was convicted in 1992 he is still under the Fair Felon Law. Can anyone explain that to me.. Is it like the life thing 80 years eligible for parole in 20 and what is his chances or getting out. He is in a NC prison. Just checking to see if anyone can help me.

    • While seeking information . I read your comment. My fiancé has been in since 1993. He is eligible for parole but has not been release because of infractions I guess.If your husband haven’t been released . Just want you to know keep the faith mines too is in NC

    • What was he convicted of ?

  15. A friend (age 19) of my son was convicted in 4/1994. He pleaded guilty, he was drunk and she had a history of being abusive (she was older than he). She beat him so bad, she broke her hand, he never defended himself. 3 days before the incident he called us in Florida and asked if he could come live with us until he found a job. He also asked that no one tell her, he was afraid of her reaction of his leaving. None of this is in his file. It was a tragic accident, he was so drunk he never intended to shoot her. What can be done?

  16. If you were convicted in 1981 with a life what Fair sentencing act does this fall under? A

  17. Sheby: It’s offense date that matters most. What was the offense date, and what was the crime?

  18. RE: How do you measure a life?
    The crime of buglary occured in 1983If you were sentenced to life in 1983 for that crime, was that life sentence considered to be 81 years?

  19. When are you going to answer my question?

  20. Marvin Evans: A life sentence for a crime committed in 1983 is a “natural life” sentence. It ends upon the inmate’s death, not after any particular term of years.

  21. A defendant pleads guilty to a series of crimes in 1982. 1st degree burglary, 2nd degree sex offense and breaking & entering. A plea is agreed to by the defense, the prosecution & the judge. Terms of plea: Life for burglary, 20 years for 2nd degree sex offense & 10 years for B&E. all sentences were to be served concurrently. However, on the judgement & committment order to the D. O. C., the judge ignores terms of plea & consolidates all three charges into one life sentence. Now the D. O. C. considers the defendant to have a life sentence for 2nd degree sex offence as well as B & E. Under the plea 2 of the sentences could be completed. Under the J & C, none of them can. What law makes the judges action legal? what about the plea….does it not mean anything?


  23. When can I expect an answer to my question?

  24. My husband was sentenced to life term in 1977. He was convicted of second degree murder. He is now in a minimum security prison, and is at a level three. He has work release priveleges, community volunteer passes, and has had no infractions since 2006. Will he have to serve the entire 80 year sentence he got?

  25. A defendant commits a crime with malice and premeditation in 1980. He is convicted in 1981. He was sentenced for (1) First Degree Murder- imprisoned for the remainder of his natural life. (2) Second Degree Murder- imprisoned for the remainder of his natural life, this sentence to run at the expiration of verdict 1. (3) Armed robbery- Imprisoned for the remainder of his natural life. What would he have to serve? Would he ever be eligible for parole? If so is there a process that can stop his eligibility? I was a victim in this crime.

  26. my husband went to prison in 1989 for att murder gun charge he got 15-75 he goes up for parole in 2017 after serving 30yrs. does he have a chance of getting paroled this is his fouth time up. he works councels other inmates trains doggs been in college classes and stays out of trouble.

  27. Was the life sentence in 1985/1985 a natural life also? Were there any early release provisions in place then? Also, where might I find a sentencing chart for 1985? Thank you!

  28. What is a life sentence now?

  29. My husband was convicted of 1st degree murder in 2004 at the age of 19. He broke into a home and a death occured in the process. Even though it wasn’t premeditated …like a 1st degree charge warrants…that is what he was charged with. He was sentenced to life without parole yet we are convinced he was senteneced wrongly. Yes he should be held accountable bc he was most definitely wrong but to be charged with a crime he DIDNT commit seems unjust. We clearly had a lack of insufficient council. In the months 8 to be exact that he spent in county jail his lawyer only spent 104 hours on his case. This is less than 4 days…for a murder charge. Is he eligible for post conviction appropriate release?

    • Research felony murder rule.

  30. […] The fallout from the Bowden case continues. The case, discussed here, held that a life sentence imposed during a several-year window in the 1970s meant 80 years, […]

  31. […] and Jones were big cases ( I wrote about them here and here, respectively). They involved important questions about when “life” means life and how […]

  32. A friend of mind has 3 class C life sentences for first degree burglary under the old law. How long does each sentence last. Can he ever get parole? He has been in for awhile and still doesn’t have a release date. Roger B. Bell – 0484760 is name. Can getting a lawyer help any.

  33. Since the life of anyone cannot truly be defined in days by any human including the federal Supreme Court. Life should be defined as ones entire life span. No court should be allow to reduce a death sentence that was given by 12 jurors because that judge can’t handle the death sentence handed down. This shows us the people that we have given to much power to our judges. I do believe if new evidence is found it should be reviewed and a new trial given if it’s determined to chance the outcome. Death means Death. I don’t like the prosecutors using the plead when they have all the marbles. Another problem is all the appeals and the time they take.